To Defend Europe, NATO Must Deploy More and Better Armored Forces
Just a few years ago, Western military leaders were all but certain that the era of the tank was over. As a result, they unwisely did away with the world’s foremost armored fighting force. Germany, the nation that more than any other perfected the role of tanks and armored formations in warfare, reduced its fleet of Leopard 2 tanks from some 2,100 to 225. The British Army, which ended the Cold War with 800 advanced tanks, currently deploys just 156 in a single regiment. France has 406 tanks but only 240 in front-line units. In comparison, the Ukrainian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk are reported to be operating more than 700 tanks, a larger fleet than that of Britain, Germany and France combined.
Moreover, reductions in combat support capabilities, logistics and manpower means that this “corporal’s guard” of NATO armored fighting units are actually less capable and deployable than the raw numbers would indicate. A recent RAND study concluded that it would take a month or more for the U.K., Germany and France to generate a combat-ready armored brigade
The U.S. Army is in a somewhat better position than its NATO allies when it comes to the size of its tank park of approximately 6,000 Abrams main battle tanks. It also has 14 fully formed Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCT) each of which consists of Abrams, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer artillery plus supporting vehicles. However, the Army believes that a heavier brigade is better, so it is converting one of its infantry brigades into an ABCT.
But almost all Army ABCTs are based in the continental United States, thousands of miles away from Europe. The only two formations based in Europe are relatively light units, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, equipped with Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The U.S. Army is working on ways to maximize its presence in Europe without recreating massive fixed infrastructure.
The Russian Army, which inherited most of the Soviet Union’s massive arsenal of over 50,000 tanks, has slimmed itself down to around 2,800 modern main battle tanks in active units plus another 12,000 in reserve. Most of these are positioned in western Russia facing NATO. Moreover, the Russian Army has reaffirmed its commitment to the tank and to heavy armored fighting forces with the re-creation of the multi-division 1st Guards Tank Army (1st GTA), an offensive unit once stationed in East Germany opposite U.S. forces on the Fulda Gap. The 1st GTA consists of some 500 to 600 tanks, 600 to 800 infantry fighting vehicles and 300 to 400 artillery pieces.
The Russian Army has also stood up three additional combined arms divisions in the West drawing troops and weapons from units stationed farther east. One long-time observer of Russian military development concludes that these force developments reflect a military doctrine that emphasizes “preemption, escalation dominance, surprise (suddenness and deception), shock, strike power, and speed of action [which] are classic features of Russian military operations... The entirety of the armed forces and its supporting military system are poised for quick, early action in a crisis, conflict, or war to preempt their opponent’s ability to surprise them.”
In order to deter Russia from attempting to use its large and well-equipped ground forces either to intimidate its neighbors to the West or to conduct a lightning war against the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine or Romania, NATO must have a strong conventional capability deployed in Eastern Europe. The decision to send American ABCTs to Europe on heel-to-toe rotations is a good beginning; for the first time, two ABCTs are being simultaneously rotated into Poland. One advantage of rotational deployments instead of permanent forward stationing is the ability to employ these units continuously in presence and training missions. Another is the avoidance of the inevitable installation and transportation costs involved with creating permanent facilities to house soldiers and their families.
In addition to increasing the number of NATO armored formations confronting Russian forces, it is also important to improve their fighting ability. Russia has not only deployed masses of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery systems in the Western and Southern Military Districts but is also working to improve the quality, and most specifically the lethality of those systems. The Russian Army is deploying the T-14 Armata main battle tank that can fire anti-tank guided missiles as well as shells and possesses an active protection system to defend against incoming rockets and anti-tank missiles. Russian forces are equipped with a variety of additional anti-tank guided missile systems, long-range artillery and rockets with a variety of warheads and very effective electronic warfare systems.
The U.S. has programs in place to upgrade the effectiveness and lethality of its major ground combat systems, the Abrams, Bradley and Paladin. The obsolescent M113 armored personnel carrier is being replaced with the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. A Stryker Lethality program is underway with the first of some 83 vehicles, equipped with a 30mm gun now arriving in Western Europe. Experiments are underway to identify active protection systems for these systems.
The effort to increase the deterrent effect of U.S. Army armored forces is limited by the pace of current modernization efforts. Simply put, so little funding is available that it will take decades to bring the armored combat platforms in the ABCTs and the Strykers to the desired levels of effectiveness and lethality. Plans have been proposed to accelerate upgrades for the Abrams tank, modernizing the entire force in about five years while reducing the program’s total cost. All the Stryker Brigades could receive the lethality upgrade package in a similar period of time. As Russia mounts one of the largest all-arms exercises it has ever conducted along its western borders, called Zapad 17, it is time to stop counting pennies and give the Army modernization the resources needed to build a credible deterrent force.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.